31 December 2005

They asked but I turned it down again...

So, arise Sir Tom Jones! I don't know what you did to justify a K, especially as Brucie only got a CBE. And does winning the European Cup count for nothing if the victors come from Liverpool?

The following are some of the few deserving recipients (here), even if they only got MBEs:
"Russell Square Tube station supervisor David Boyce, who ran into the tunnel to provide first aid to victims of the bombing, is made an MBE.
Paramedic William Kilminster, who helped those trapped in the tunnel between Russell Square and King's Cross, and Pc Deborah Russell-Fenwick, who helped victims of the Tavistock Place bus attack, also become MBEs.
Off-duty Tube driver John Boyle, who entered Aldgate Tube station to rescue victims, is also appointed an MBE. "

Sour grapes

The Scotsman reports on a blast from the past:
SCOTS singing legend Moira Anderson launched a scathing attack on the BBC yesterday, saying she would rather read a book than watch tonight's flagship Hogmanay show.
The White Heather Club stalwart said she was embarrassed that the programme which helped to make her a household name had become so "crass".
She said: "The BBC has become obsessed with not appearing old-fashioned, so they put on the rubbish at Hogmanay that we have now.
"But at New Year people would prefer traditional Scottish music, because Hogmanay is a traditional time of year. People would be much happier dancing to some old-fashioned Scottish music - and that goes for young and old.
"I certainly won't be watching the Hogmanay show - I'd rather read a book."

Aye weel - not everyone was totally enamoured of the shortbread and kilt kitsch that was the White Heather Club. BBC Scotland at Hogmanay was always embarrassing - why should it be different today? But bringing back Moira Anderson is not the answer.

28 December 2005

Sweet and sour?

The Independent reports:
"Bob Geldof has agreed to work with the Tories on a world poverty group being set up by David Cameron, the Conservative leader.
Mr Cameron has appointed Peter Lilley, a former Cabinet minister, to head the commission. His co-operation with Mr Geldof, who has warmly praised Tony Blair's initiatives at the G8 for Africa, will be seen as a further attempt to steer the Tories towards "caring Conservatism".
Senior Tories emphasised that Mr Geldof was acting in a non-party role. "There is no question of Sir Bob joining the Conservatives," said a Tory source. "While remaining entirely non-partisan, Bob will work with the group to bring his influence to bear in order to help us go in the direction that he and we both want."
Mr Cameron said: "This summer, millions of British people took part in the Make Poverty History campaign. A new generation of concerned citizens want prosperity for themselves and progress for the poor - whether living on the other side of the street or the other side of the world. Modern, compassionate Conservatism means responding to their demands."

Would that be the Peter Lilley who, when Social Security Secretary, said he had a "little list" of people to deal with, including unwed mothers who got pregnant to jump the housing queue (here)? Seems a strange choice to deal with poverty, even in the modern caring compassionate Conservative Party.

And why would St Bob want to become involved? I can't believe that his motivation is solely based on a desire to see his name in the media once again...

New year grills

Lucy Mangan in The Guardian goes all metaphysical for 2006:
Should I buy a George Foreman grill? This question is hedged round by a variety of others, such as: if the current model boldly advertises the incorporation of a floating hinge, does that mean there were earlier editions that had just ordinary hinges? If so, did this not mean that they were perilously close to being toasted sandwich makers? More pressingly, is the George Foreman grill not just - how can I put this? - a grill? OK, a grill that cooks both sides of a chop at once, but in health terms, which seems to be the main selling point of the "lean, mean grilling machine", exactly the same as that thing most of the western world already has in the oven? The 17-year-old sales assistants who staff most of our leading electrical goods stores are unable to furnish me with a satisfactory response and, indeed, become distressed and vexed at my constant pursuit of resolution, so I will enter 2006 still searching.

Heavy, man, heavy...

Food or sex?

From The Guardian (here):
"Home-cooked food such as shepherd's pie is what nearly half of Britons would most like to come home to, according to a poll by Homepride. Only 13% ranked a romantic night in with their partner as their first choice.
Ann Thomas, a counselling psychologist, said the survey showed people craved an antidote to the fast pace of modern life: "Cooking and then eating a warming traditional meal is a subconscious wish to reconnect with the safety of our home environment, as well as relaxing and finding sanctuary from the elements and world outside."

Or maybe people just like shepherd's pie...

26 December 2005

What? No Sidney Devine?

The Defence Secretary betrays a complete lack of musical taste. From The Times (here):
"John Reid, the Defence Secretary, turned disc jockey yesterday to send a message of thanks to the 38,000 British Armed Forces personnel serving overseas.
Mr Reid recorded an hour-long show that was broadcast on the British forces radio station BFBS. He picked five of his favourite tunes to entertain the troops...
Mr Reid’s chosen songs were: Amarillo, by Tony Christie; Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen; Wind Beneath Your Wings, by Bette Midler; Country Roads, by John Denver; and Mull of Kintyre, by Paul McCartney."

24 December 2005

Jingling all the way

Let's have some sympathy for those who have to spend Christmas Day with their idiot relatives. From The Telegraph (here):
"It has been a year of "firsts" for the Duchess of Cornwall, who has successfully navigated her way through her first solo engagements and her first overseas tour since marrying the heir to the throne.
Now she faces another, possibly more critical, challenge; her first royal Christmas at Sandringham - with her in-laws...
Each member of the Royal Family awakes on Christmas morning to stockings at the foot of their bed, usually filled with small gifts and fruit.
Then after a full English breakfast, they attend Christmas morning service at St Mary Magdalene, the church on the estate.
All members, except the Queen and those with tiny children, walk to the church, where they are watched by crowds of well-wishers.
Back at Sandringham, they settle down to a traditional Christmas lunch at 1pm, including a turkey reared on the estate and all the trimmings, before gathering around the television set to watch the Queen's Christmas broadcast at 3pm.
In the afternoon, the Queen has been known to take her corgis for a stroll, and other members of the family work off their lunch with some gentle outdoor exercise. The evening is spent relaxing, playing games and watching television, much as in other households across the land."

22 December 2005


Congratulations to Arthur's Seat for his clerihew competition. My favourite:
First Minister Jack McConnell
Long after he's gone'll
Be chiefly remembered
For being rather bad-tempered

But check out the other entries.

A turkey is not just for Christmas


Smoke gets in your eyes

Sinister or what? The Scotsman reports on the latest moves by the health fascists:
Key quote "Does your organisation know which of the homes visited by its staff are occupied by smokers? If not, it would be advisable to develop such a list. Once the situation relating to individual properties is ascertained, steps can be taken to reduce the exposure the staff might face" - Executive published guidelines on the ban on smoking in public places

Story in full THE public are to be told not to smoke in their own homes as part of plans to protect public sector workers from the effect of passive smoking.
The move is the latest part of the Scottish Executive's ban on smoking in public places, which will come into force on 26 March next year.
Ministers have told councils, health boards and social work departments that they should compile a "smokers' map" of Scotland, focusing on those who regularly receive visits from officials and carers. This would identify individual households where a smoker is resident.
The smokers would then be sent letters asking them not to smoke for one hour before a council worker or health worker called round. Public bodies have also been advised to use the smokers' map to ensure that any workers who suffer from breathing problems are kept away from the homes of smokers.

Intriguingly, the Scottish Executive press release (here) includes a quotation from ASH. Unusual that the Executive would wish to be so closely associated with a controversial lobby group. In the interests of balance, should FOREST not also have been invited to set out its views? Or is the Executive only interested in pushing one side of the story? If the Executive is in bed with ASH, can it be trusted to take a dispassionate and unbiased view of the matter?

What a surprise!

The Herald reports that Scottish Executive Ministers have owned up:
"Ministers at Holyrood finally admitted last night that the Scottish Executive's much-vaunted efficiency drive was nowhere near as tough as its equivalent south of the border. Tom McCabe, finance minister, told MSPs some key savings targets set in Scotland were less than half as taxing as those laid down for Whitehall departments. The admission, which came as Holyrood debated next year's budget, shattered previous executive boasts that they would exceed Whitehall in its efficiency drive, which is supposed to plough £1.2bn from back office work across the public sector into services, including nursing and teaching, by 2008.
The debate also saw Des McNulty, Labour convener of Holyrood's finance committee, attack the executive's "bean counters". He said there was a growing army of bureaucrats, and singled out the "burgeoning office of the permanent secretary", the head of the civil service in Scotland.
Opposition parties said the executive's efficiency drive had been exposed as empty political posturing. In September last year, Mr McConnell said he would "go further" than the English review on government efficiency savings written by Sir Peter Gershon, an aim echoed by Mr McCabe."

The efficiency savings hoo-ha represents something of a pattern: bold and ambitious announcement, subsequent failure to deliver, pretence that everything is on track, then eventually ignominious climbdown. And no-one will be held accountable. The Executive - Ministers and senior civil servants - must do better.

We will return to the matter of the burgeoning office of the Permanent Secretary on a future occasion. But anyone who wants to see an illustration of its expansion need only consult here (although - with typical efficiency - the site does not appear to have been updated since March 2005).


The Guardian sets out the arithmetic underlying the European budget deal:
"Blair made two key concessions at the weekend, which adds to the UK's likely net payments from 2007 to 2013. The first was to increase the overall size of the EU budget, in order to spend more on help for the accession countries in eastern Europe. This raised the European budget from 1.03% of GDP to 1.045, a tiny change that will have cost the UK something much less than £1bn cumulatively over seven years.
The second concession was to cancel about £7bn of Thatcher's rebate, again over seven years. Here are the numbers: Once the overall budget had been set at 1.045% of GDP, the total British contribution would have amounted to about £72bn cumulatively from 2007 to 13, if the British rebate had never been invented. With that rebate remaining in full force, the UK contribution would have been only £34bn. And now, with Blair's concession, the net cost to Britain will be £41bn.
The prime minister's decision to concede about one-fifth of the Thatcher rebate will increase the average annual bill for the UK from 0.39% of our GDP, which is what it would have been with the Thatcher rebate, to 0.47% of GDP under the deal made last weekend. Even for some of our xenophobic friends in the British press, that difference of 0.08% of GDP must seem like slim pickings."

Put like this, perhaps Mr Blair's performance at the Brussels summit was not as bad as has been painted by most of the media.

More on that Christmas card

Marina Hyde in The Guardian deconstructs the Wenger-Mourinho spat:
"Contemplating Mourinho and Wenger, it is hard not to be reminded of Metternich and Talleyrand, the masterly 19th-century Austrian and French diplomats whose rivalry and gamesmanship was so intense that, upon hearing Talleyrand had died, Metternich replied: "Yes. But what did he mean by it?" Even had Mourinho's card contained nothing more than the words "Happy Christmas, Best Wishes Jose Mourinho", it is perfectly possible to imagine Wenger poring dementedly over it and screaming: "Yes. BUT WHAT DOES HE MEAN BY IT??"
It seems odd that whenever people suggest a three-week break in the Premiership over Christmas, they always do so thinking of the players. That both the Arsenal and Chelsea managers could use some sort of holiday seems clear. But somehow the former's paranoia makes him the more obvious candidate for spending his in one of those Swiss places that are euphemistically known as rest facilities. As each new detail emerges of how Mourinho's antics affect him, Wenger's behaviour increasingly resembles that of Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies. His developing a nervous tic now seems inevitable.
One can quite understand how much Mourinho's schtick would send him off the dial...
All of which has made the card itself - a child's drawing, since reproduced in several newspapers - seem an unlikely object of menace, like one of those nursery rhymes recited in horror movies. The more you look at this cheery little snowman in his Chelsea strip, apparently drawn by a nine-year-old, the more it takes on the character of a Trojan horse, delivered to Highbury with the express purpose of sending Wenger round the twist.
Indeed, the longer one considers it, the more uncertain reality seems. Perhaps it was not drawn by a nine-year-old at all. Perhaps it was simply designed to look like it was drawn by one, when in fact it is the handiwork of a manipulative rogue psychologist and teems with destructive subliminal messages. And yet, that way madness lies. With this business, the one thing we can detect with absolute, cast-iron certainty is a hint of the under-10s."

I suppose peace and goodwill are out of the question?

20 December 2005

What is Frau Merkel up to?

Le Figaro reports (here):
"à PEINE ENGRANGÉ son triomphe au sommet budgétaire des Vingt-Cinq, Angela Merkel «pousse l'Europe» à aller plus loin, si l'on en croit le Handelsblatt. Le quotidien économique se réfère à des sources au gouvernement allemand et au sein du PPE, le regroupement de partis conservateurs européens, pour expliquer que la chancelière entend appuyer sur l'accélérateur social afin de sortir l'Union européenne de l'ornière.
«Il n'y a pas encore d'idées concrètes», tempère Thomas Steg, le porte-parole de la «grande coalition». Mais il ne dément en rien qu'il y ait quelque chose dans le pipeline. Selon le Handelsblatt, Angela Merkel réfléchit aux moyens de raviver le processus de ratification de la Constitution européenne, au point mort depuis les référendums à Paris et La Haye.
Pour en rendre le texte acceptable aux opinions française et néerlandaise lors d'un vote renouvelé, elle envisagerait d'y ajouter sans le modifier un «protocole social», de nature à accentuer cet aspect de l'intégration. Les chefs d'Etat et de gouvernement souscriraient alors à une déclaration sur la «dimension sociale de l'Europe» qui, sans avoir de valeur juridique contraignante, obligerait de facto les Etats membres à davantage prendre en compte les conséquences sociales de la législation communautaire en matière de marché intérieur. Des projets d'inspiration libérale à l'instar de la directive Bolkestein sur les services trouveraient alors à Bruxelles un filtre supplémentaire à leur adoption.
L'initiative, si elle devait prendre forme, n'est pourtant pas pour demain. Thomas Steg prend ainsi soin de renvoyer à l'«accord de coalition» entre la CDU-CSU et le SPD, qui a pour objectif de donner des «impulsions» à l'UE pendant la présidence allemande, au premier semestre de 2007. D'ici là, il y aura eu les élections en France et aux Pays-Bas, de quoi repartir sur des bases nouvelles. D'autant que Tony Blair et Silvio Berlusconi risquent alors de ne plus appartenir au cénacle européen."

Essentially, she is considering some means of getting the proposed European constitution back on track, perhaps by appending to the proposed treaty a declaration on "the social dimension of Europe" which would require Member States to take greater account of the social consequences of community legislation on the internal market.

I rather doubt if Mr Blair or Mr Brown will welcome any such initiative.

Childish or what?

The Guardian reveals that football managers are not immune from behaving like big babies:
"Jose Mourinho declined to shake Arsène Wenger's hand after Chelsea's 2-0 defeat of Arsenal on Sunday because he felt affronted by the FA Cup holders' manager.
Mourinho had circulated a signed corporate Christmas card to all the Premiership managers but had written a personal message in Wenger's. In that he is said by Chelsea sources to have apologised over the pair's dispute this season, insisting he had never intended their spat to become personal.
However, one of the Arsenal backroom staff is said to have approached a Chelsea counterpart before the game to ask about the authenticity of the message, a question which dismayed Mourinho.
When Wenger walked past Mourinho without a word in front of the dugouts, the Portuguese felt it was he who had suffered a snub, prompting his post-match rebuff."

Is this the behaviour of adults?

Light in the darkness

Perhaps it is just the time of year, but amid the unremitting gloom cast by the media it becomes increasingly difficult to find the occasional shaft of light. Nevertheless a diminishing proportion of the population may be cheered up by this article in The Guardian (here):
"Dark chocolate could help smokers cut the risk of serious heart disease, a study at the University Hospital in Zurich has found.
Researchers used ultrasound scans to look at blood flow and clot-causing platelets in the arteries of 25 male smokers after they ate white and dark chocolate.
Antioxidants rose two hours after eating 40g of dark chocolate, blood flow was smoother and the build-up of platelets halved.
White chocolate made no difference, they say in the journal Heart. "Only a small treat of dark chocolate may benefit vascular health," said Roberto Corti who led the study."


19 December 2005

The Sunday Post mentality

The Herald records:
"The Western Isles is to become the only region in Britain to ban gay wedding ceremonies, it emerged yesterday. Councillors in Stornoway have expressed support for the islands' registrars who are refusing to perform civil partnership ceremonies, which can be held across Scotland from tomorrow. The local authority's stance contradicts Scottish Executive policy on the provision of ceremonies for same-sex unions, and has attracted criticism from gay rights campaigners. "

What to do about Stornoway? Some of the nicest people in the world, but also some of the most intolerant Christians around...

18 December 2005

The best small country in the world?

Maybe the fattest. From Scotland on Sunday (here):

"Last week, a new report revealed that the number of obese children in Scotland is running at double the UK average.
More than a third of 12-year-old children were classed as overweight in the 2004-05 school year, while 19.4% were obese and 11.2% were classed as severely obese.
Some 20% of those aged three-and-a-half were overweight, 8.6% were obese and 4% were severely obese.
Ministers, meanwhile, have been at the centre of controversy for failing to practise what they preach. Figures published in March showed that ministers and top civil servants made more than ten taxi or official car trips a week between the Scottish Executive headquarters at St Andrew's House and the nearby Scottish Parliament, even though the buildings are just a few minutes apart by foot.
Ministers were accused of adding to congestion in the capital and failing to live up to their healthy living message after making the short trip by car a total of 276 times in just six months. "
And, possibly, the thickest. From Scotland on Sunday (here):
Education figures published last week showed that, at the critical S2 level (of 13 to 14-year-olds), more than three in 10 pupils are failing to achieve the basic standards in reading, four in 10 are failing in maths and almost half are failing in writing. In Glasgow, nearly 60% of pupils failed the Level E assessment for writing in 2005.
And, probably, one of the most dangerous. From The Sunday Herald (here):
"Government statistics confirmed Scotland as one of the most violent countries in Western Europe. They highlighted a disturbing trend showing that the number of victims of murder and culpable homicide had soared by more than 25% in a year to 137. A knife or other sharp instrument was the most common murder weapon, accounting for 72 victims, the highest figure for a decade.
Although the number of murders represented the highest since 1995 to 1996 – the year of the Dunblane massacre, in which 16 schoolchildren and their teacher were killed – the figure has been steadily growing for years.
Through the 1970s the average number of homicides per year was 86. That figure rose to 96 per year in the 1980s and 110 through the 1990s – excluding Lockerbie and Dunblane. Since the turn of the millennium, killings in Scotland have averaged more than 111 each year."

16 December 2005

"Once upon a time there was a tavern..."

Most improbable quotation of the day:
"As a socialist all my life, I believe that people should have more control over their own affairs. I also believe that a fundamental principle of our socialism is that people should have that democratic control over their own lives and the places in which they live."

From Jack McConnell at yesterday's FMQs (here).

Every picture tells a story


15 December 2005

Could happy days be here again?

Fascinating anecdote in Tina Brown's article in The Spectator, concerning the auction of Hillary Clinton's memoirs at the end of the Clinton presidency:
"Hillary looked exhausted, as anyone might at the fag end of a hellish eight years of unrelenting pressure, including a punishing, if triumphant, run for the US Senate. Under heavy professional make-up her eyelids literally drooped with fatigue. The small attentive smile she always wears on the job was strained. Like many global superstars, she has a larger head than you expect, and it tends to nod slowly (and endorsingly, one thinks) as she listens. Her least beguiling quality is a flat, strong, Midwestern voice, and she immediately started pitching the book to us without any of the bonding and interpersonal foreplay you would have got with Bill. ‘I am the only one to have inhabited my own life,’ she said ‘and I am the only one to tell this story.’ The elephant in the room, of course, was how much she would inhabit the bit of her life about Monica Lewinsky, which was what publishers were lining up to write cheques for.
But there was something about the implacable self-belief in Hillary’s stare that made it very hard
to bring up Monica. Eventually we did. Sort of. ‘It will be there — the Monica section,’ the First Lady said levelly. The unspoken words in the long pause that followed were, ‘I will give you as much as I have to give you on that fat cow to collect eight million bucks.’ Hillary is nothing if not disciplined."

The bulk of the article sets out the way in which Senator Clinton has taken up centrist positions in anticipation of a run for the presidency. But it offers no real clues on the important question of whether Hillary's conversion to the centre is for real. Or is it just a smokescreen? And does it matter if we were to have another President Clinton?

"They don't know about us"

The Evening News reports:
A SCULPTURE is to be created outside the city council's new headquarters by the company behind major artworks along the M8 and inside the Scottish Parliament.
A shortlist of artists to design the £100,000 sculpture is about to be drawn up by Art in Partnership, the firm responsible for the controversial giant horn next to the M8 and the Temple at Tyre sculpture Leith Docks.
The public art commissioning agency has now been put in charge of selecting an artist to reflect the city's vision of "Edinburgh - Inspiring Capital".
Artists from all over the world are expected to compete to design the landmark structure in front of the £50 million East Market Street headquarters.

Oh dear - will the city fathers never learn? This is Edinburgh. We don't do culture, especially when the cost falls on the council taxpayer. And to make matters worse:
City culture leader Councillor Ricky Henderson today said he hoped the judging panel would come up with a "thought-provoking and off-beat" design.

No, no and thrice no. It will end in tears...

G8 benefits

It's really not fair. As economic consultants, you push the data as far as you can - even going so far as to count gross income as a net benefit, while suggesting that police overtime paid to English police counts wholly as a net economic benefit to Scotland. And you tot up all of the foreign press references as if they had to be paid for as advertising space. And, eventually, you come up with the right answers for your client, the Scottish Executive, even if it has only earned you a measly £60 grand.

And are the yellow press happy? Instead of praising your imaginative innovative approach to economic analysis, The Herald reports:

"Figures claiming Scotland made a profit from hosting the G8 summit were arrived at by taking every news item on the conference and attributing to this the cost of buying that amount of advertising, civil servants conceded yesterday. The claims, that the long-term figure for free advertising could reach more than £600m, have been derided by the business community. Graham Birse, deputy chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said: "If we were
buying £600m of worldwide publicity for Scotland, I hardly think we'd use it to show pictures of rioters trashing Princes Street Gardens. At the end of the day, Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, delivered magnificently for the G8, and we can be proud of that. But to suggest we have made some fantastic financial gain beggars belief." Tom McCabe, the finance minister, welcomed the report by consultants SQW, claiming the £60m cost to the Scottish Executive for the lion's share of hosting the event was offset by almost £65m going into the economy around that time. SQW also claimed the immediate publicity in July was worth £66m in free advertising, and could reach more than £600m."

while The Scotsman was even more scathing:

"SCOTTISH ministers were accused last night of "shoddy accounting" over a report which concluded that Scotland would make millions of pounds in profit from staging this summer's G8 summit.
The report, funded by the Scottish Executive, claimed the money generated through G8-related spending outweighed the cost to Scottish taxpayers of staging the event by nearly £5 million - a figure angrily dismissed by business leaders.
A second claim - that global coverage of the summit at Gleneagles in July was worth more than £600 million in advertising - was also attacked by marketing experts, who said the figure was "highly questionable".

14 December 2005

Why telling porkies is not advisable

The Guardian reports:
"The home secretary today defended the government's decision not to hold a full public inquiry into the July 7 bombings.
Charles Clarke spoke as some of the victims of the bombings, Muslim leaders and Conservatives criticised the decision, which was confirmed by the Home Office last night.
Instead of an independent judicial inquiry, a senior civil servant will compile a "narrative" on the attacks in London using evidence compiled by the police and two House of Commons select committees.
The narrative may also, in an unprecedented move, make public some of the secret intelligence about the four bombers, who killed themselves and 52 people."

So there will be a narrative. But, after the dodgy dossiers on Iraq, who will believe it? The Government's credibility is shot. Even if they want to tell the truth (which is a big assumption), no-one will trust a word.

13 December 2005

Straws in the wind

The Prime Minister seems to be running out of steam,

here in The Guardian:
"Tony Blair's drive to tackle antisocial behaviour is faltering, with plans for a "Respect" bill having to be shelved because of the lack of consensus across Whitehall over what it should contain.
The prime minister promised the Labour party conference this autumn that plans "for a radical extension of summary powers for the police and local authorities to tackle the wrongdoers" would be published by the end of the year.
But during a visit yesterday to Harlow, Essex, one of 60 antisocial behaviour trailblazer zones, Mr Blair confirmed that his Respect bill had been downgraded to a Home Office action plan to be published in the new year. "

and here, also in The Guardian:
"Two former Labour education secretaries, David Blunkett and Estelle Morris, are poised to put themselves in the frontline of opposition to Tony Blair's blueprint for "independent state" secondary schools, which threatens to split the party.
Lady Morris used an interview by the Guardian yesterday to flag up her opposition, warning that last month's education white paper is "at best a distraction, at worst a change of direction".

and here in The Telegraph:
"Ministers are to scale back plans for reform of the welfare system, including extra means-testing of people on long-term sickness benefit, because Tony Blair no longer has enough support among Labour MPs to force them through Parliament.
Despite his promise in September of "radical" reform to incapacity benefit, which 2.7 million people claim at an annual cost of £12 billion, Government sources say the changes will have to be limited and less controversial.
"To open up another front now would be mad," one said last night. Mr Blair was already at war with his party over education and health reforms and could not afford to risk further confrontation."

Not looking terribly good on the legacy front...

Tony's crony

What does the unelected Lord Falconer know about democracy or free speech? Not a lot, it would appear. The BBC reports:
"Lord Falconer says it is "ridiculously overdone" to claim free speech is being undermined after the arrest of a woman for listing the UK's Iraq war dead.
Maya Evans, 25, recited the 97 names by the Cenotaph memorial to Britain's war dead in Whitehall, near Downing Street.
She was found guilty of breaking a new law stopping unauthorised protests within half a mile of Parliament.
The lord chancellor said the law was a "sensible" precaution to stop disorder rather than an attack on free speech.
Ms Evans, a vegan cook from Hastings, was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay £100 costs after being found guilty of breaching the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act

So this law is a sensible precaution to stop disorder? In what way was Ms Evans threatening disorder?

Obviously, Lord Falconer has no shame.

Parliamentary allowances

If you really want to know how much your MSP has claimed in allowances, you can find out here. Go to page 17 and click on the relevant MSP.

If there is a scandal, it is the travel rates (here):
Motor Mileage 49.3p per mile
Motor Cycle 24p per mile
Pedal Cycle 20p per mile

It would be nitpicking to suggest that these seem absurdly generous. But, then, why not pick nits?

Linguistic incidents

Why are the sketch writers always so nasty about Mr Prescott? Here is Ms Treneman in The Times on yesterday's statement on the Buncefield fire:
"Mr Prescott tried to take it slowly and there were very few linguistic incidents.
The plume was not toxic, he said, adding that it was made up of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocardigans. Surely this is an improvement on hydrocarbons. It makes them seem a lot friendlier. The world cannot help but be a nicer place with hydrocardigans in it.
There was another molecular incident involving Sarah Teather, the extremely short and rather intense Liberal Democrat. The problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they cannot stop themselves letting us how much they know. So, obviously, Ms Teather could not just ask about the plume. Oh no. Instead, she wanted to know about the impact of polycystic hydroaromatic hydrocarbons. This had the Hansard reporters snorting.
As she said this I saw Mr Prescott scribble something down on his notepad and wondered what it could possibly be. For most of us, it would have been: hydroaromatic — crispy duck? Mr Prescott sidestepped it all by answering the question this way: “Chemical reaction — these are matters for Health and Safety.”

11 December 2005

Old news

The Sunday Times re-cycles the article from last Monday's Scotsman:
"A group of 16 senior Scottish civil servants are to receive public payouts of nearly £2m on top of their already comfortable pensions. Each of the 16 — members and former members of the Scottish executive’s management group — stand to get “golden goodbyes” averaging more than £100,000 when they are 60.
The windfall will boost their handsome pension entitlements and enable them to plan for the kind of cushy retirement beyond the wildest dreams of the ordinary taxpayer...
Fat-cat officials, however, can continue to cream money from the public purse.
The inequality is stark and highlights a growing gap between the lifestyles of Scotland’s political classes and the rest of the population since devolution.
Among those who will benefit from taxpayer munificence is John Elvidge, permanent secretary at the Scottish executive and Scotland’s top mandarin. He will retire with a lump sum of about £160,000, plus a pension in the region of £50,000 a year. "

I have already commented on this here and do not propose to repeat myself.

The sad thing is that there are real questions to be asked about the competence of the Scottish Executive Management Group, their background and their (lack of) experience, and their failure to interact with both the real world and the administrative world of local authorities, government agencies and the people in the Executive who do the real work. Instead, journalists go for the low-hanging fruit, even if it has already been plucked.

Sympathy for the devil

Sometimes, being a journalist can be a tough life. Here is Iain Macwhirter in The Sunday Herald:
"When Tony Blair took over, Labour already had a clear and long-established lead over the Conservatives in the opinion polls. Today Conservatives have been trailing Labour in the national polls .
Cameron will have to achieve a remarkable and unprecedented turn-around in the opinion polls if he is to stand any chance of winning the next general election. It looks an impossible mountain to climb. "

Right on cue, here comes The Observer to show that the impossible mountain has indeed been climbed:
"ICM, in the Sunday Telegraph says if an election were held tomorrow, the Conservatives would get 37 per cent, against 35 per cent for Labour. When respondents were asked how they would vote in a future Cameron-Brown contest, the gap widened to 40 per cent for the Tories, giving them a three-point lead.
A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times showed the Tories leading Labour by 37 per cent to 36 per cent - a two-point rise for the Conservatives and one-point fall for Labour in a month. Brown's approval rating - more than 40 per cent before the general election last May - is now just 4 per cent."

It's not the whole story of course - a one-off boost in the polls does not prove anything. But the above illustrates the difficulties of writing for the Sundays.

09 December 2005

Class war (or, if you like, envy and prejudice)

The Scotsman reports the latest attack on class privilege:
"BLUE blood no longer cuts any ice with one Scottish council, which has ordered the landed gentry to drag their wheelie bins to the ends of their extensive driveways if they want their rubbish collected.
Two of the best-known landowners in the Borders have expressed displeasure at the measure aimed at saving the council bin lorries 14,000 miles of travelling and £17,000 in costs.
Until recently landowners were offered the special service of having rubbish collected from outside the doors of their homes. This was seen as unfair to others who had to haul their refuse out into the street.
Under the new system rubbish will be uplifted only if left at the end of the drive, leaving many landowners to trek a couple of hundred yards just to put the bins out each week. "

The landed gentry need not expect any sympathy from me. As I reside in a tenement flat, I have to drag my rubbish down three flights of stairs and then to the nearest communal wheely bin. Why should the lairds get better service?

The Jack and Annabel show

In his parliamentary sketch in The Times, even Magnus Linklater rises to the occasion:
"Ms Goldie now went for the clinch. She said that she detected “a certain ambivalence” in Mr McConnell’s response and, rising dangerously from the sofa, she launched herself towards him. “It takes two for Punch and Judy to tango,” she announced thrillingly, if somewhat obscurely. “Here I am with arms outstretched.” As the First Minister, his face a mask of horror, retreated into his seat, she delivered what is almost certainly the most resistible offer he has had all day. Instead of dallying with the “duplicitous whimsy” of his Lib Dem colleagues, she told him, he should accept the warm embrace of the Scottish Tories. United by the common agreement that all was not well, and the stirring principle that something radical had to be done, they could set out along the aisle of political union to forge a better world (that last bit is made up, but it was the kind of thing she was driving at).
At this point Mr McConnell had a strong sense of deja-vu and realised he had a late-night bus to catch. The vision she held out, he said, was of David Cameron reaching out to Tony Blair to clasp him to his bosom. She nodded — that was just what she had in mind. “I’m not going to respond here and now,” he said thickly. Did that leave the door open a chink? We all wondered. But it was what he said next that left Ms Goldie dabbing her eyes and gazing mistily into the distance. “I am prepared to listen to her questions,” he told her, “if she is prepared to change the questions and listen to the answers.” Whatever is a girl to think? We must wait for the next tantalising episode of the Jack and Annabel show to find out."

Romance and the First Minister, and it's not even Valentine's day!

Rocket Man

The Independent is deeply worried about the social consequences of civil partnerships:
Sir Elton John's marriage later this month raises an important matter of protocol: how should we address his future spouse, David Furnish?
As commentators in The Spectator and elsewhere have noted, a knight of the realm's other half is usually given the title "Lady." This, they say, means Furnish ... could become "David, Lady John," or "Lady David John."
Meanwhile, Debrett's, an authority on such matters, has suggested that "Laddy" might make for a suitable modern alternative.
Mr Furnish may or may not be happy to plump for one of these options, but we are at present unable to find out.
The couple's spokesman describes their future official titles as "a private matter" and, when pressed, says enquiries of this nature are "incredibly homophobic".

As a humble peasant, I have nothing to offer on this controversy, although I have to note that it is a while since Sir Elton made a decent record.

The wee bit hill and glen

The Independent, rather surprisingly, seems much more sympathetic to the SNP than one might expect. It tells the story of the McCrone report of 1974 which, if made public, might possibly have led to Scottish independence. Not exactly new news, of course, but worth recording:
"An independent Scotland's budget surpluses as a result of the oil boom, wrote Professor McCrone, would be so large as to be "embarrassing".
Scotland's currency "would become the hardest in Europe, with the exception perhaps of the Norwegian Kronor." From being poorer than their southern neighbours, Scots would quite possibly become richer. Scotland would be in a position to lend heavily to England and "this situation could last for a very long time into the future."
In short, the oil would put the British boot, after centuries of resentment, firmly on the foot standing north of the border.
Within days of its receipt at Westminster in 1974, Professor McCrone's document was judged as incendiary and classified as secret. It would be sat upon for the next thirty years.
The mandarins demanded that Professor McCrone's 19-page analysis be given "only a most restricted circulation in the Scottish Office because of the extreme sensitivity of the subject." The subject was sensitive alright.
This is a story of Whitehall betrayal that will satisfy the pre-conceptions of the most extreme Scottish anglophobe."

Ah well. One more betrayal by London to add to the list. But interesting that a London newspaper should acknowledge the fact. And there is not a lot that we can do about it now. Anyway, who wants to be rich when we can be happy moaning about the perfidy of our southern neighbours?

Swings and roundabouts

The Herald reports on Mr Cameron's shadow cabinet re-shuffle:
"Mr Cameron promised to use his victory to transform the way the party looks and sounds. Yet, the majority of faces around the table were there under Mr Howard. However, new ones include David Mundell, the only Scottish Tory MP, who becomes shadow Scottish secretary. The member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale is another MP who has been in the Commons only since May."

I suppose that this means that Ms Eleanor Laing MP, the previous shadow Scottish secretary, has been sacked. But as no-one appeared to know that she was the shadow Scottish secretary, it is hardly surprising.

Update: The Times says that Ms Laing has been named as Shadow Minister for Women and Equality.

07 December 2005

Jingle bells

The Washington Post records the travails of President Bush over his choice of Christmas card:
"What's missing from the White House Christmas card? Christmas.
This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy "holiday season."
Many people are thrilled to get a White House Christmas card, no matter what the greeting inside. But some conservative Christians are reacting as if Bush stuck coal in their stockings.
"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
The cover art is also secular, if not humanist: It shows the presidential pets -- two dogs and a cat -- frolicking on a snowy White House lawn.
"Certainly President and Mrs. Bush, because of their faith, celebrate Christmas," said Susan Whitson, Laura Bush's press secretary. "Their cards in recent years have included best wishes for a holiday season, rather than Christmas wishes, because they are sent to people of all faiths."

Wow - 1.4 million cards; I feel sorry for whoever has to lick the stamps.

Here we go, here we go, here we go

So Mr Cameron has finally won. He appears to be a pleasant fellow. But that hardly excuses the gadarene rush of the media to fall at his feet and declare him to be the best thing since sliced bread. Thankfully, Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian retains sufficient sanity to point to the cloven hooves beneath Mr Cameron's cycle anorak:
"In four years in the Commons he has voted against every extra investment in schools, hospitals and the police. He voted against the increase in national insurance that went on the NHS. He wants to abolish the New Deal and undo Britain's adherence to the European social chapter, the document that ensures a variety of rights and protections for British workers.
Again and again, Cameron may talk left, but he remains a man of the right. The work-life balance is a favoured theme, constantly advertising his own hands-on involvement in family duties, yet in 2002 he voted against a battery of measures that would have extended maternity leave to 26 weeks, raised maternity pay and introduced two weeks' paid leave for fathers as well as leave for adoptive parents. Most striking, given his own circumstances, he voted against giving parents of young or disabled children the right to request flexible working.
On schools, he has advocated a voucher system that would send resources to private schools at the expense of state comprehensives. On health, he has argued for a "patients' passport", which would enable individuals to jump the NHS queue, partly using public money to go private.
It is on the economy, though, that the gloss should wear off fastest. Cameron talks of "sharing" the fruits of growth between investment and tax cuts. Sounds reasonable, everyone likes sharing. Trouble is, that diversion of funds to tax cuts would bite deep into planned spending: losing £12bn this year and £17bn next, according to Gordon Brown. That will allow the chancellor to use the same tactic against Cameron that destroyed each of his predecessors. Which services will be cut? Which school playground won't be renovated, which hospital ward will be shut?"

My bet would also be on Mr Brown. He has been a professional politician for years, even decades. He'll take Mr Cameron apart.

Nor do the Tories have the collective discipline required. The first grumbles will start tomorrow when Mr Cameron names his shadow cabinet.

All in all, I suspect that within 12 months the Tories will be looking for yet another leader.

06 December 2005

Tourism from Katowice?

Press release from the Scottish Executive:
"Route Development Fund (RDF) backing for two new air services linking Edinburgh with the Polish cities of Gdansk and Katowice was announced today.
RDF funding will allow Centralwings to provide the additional routes to Poland and expand their existing service to Warsaw.
Transport Minister Tavish Scott said:
"This is good news for Scotland. These new services will provide essential business links between Scotland, Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, attracting people from these emerging economies to come and live and work in Scotland.
"The airline's existing service to Warsaw has been a real success. These new services will give Scotland's tourist industry more opportunities to attract visitors from Eastern Europe.
"Our Route Development Fund is delivering real economic benefits for Scotland - making a real difference for business travellers and tourists by expanding our direct air services."

Let us not pretend - we are not going to be inundated by Polish tourists visiting Edinburgh. Nor will Fred Goodwin be rushing to book his flight. We are, however, going to see increasing numbers of shop assistants, carpenters and agricultural workers from Katowice and Gdansk. I regard them as a welcome contribution to our economy. And if we can persuade them to settle here and establish businesses, then so much the better. But why is the Executive so bashful about it?

And while we're on the subject of animal fats...

The Guardian seeks to put its readers off mince pies for life:
"Suet is hardened fat found in the abdomen of sheep and cattle, particularly around the loins and kidneys. It is commonly used in cooking, as a bird food and for making candles. It is a key ingredient in mincemeat, which traditionally contained real meat but now tends to be made from raisins, spices, citrus peel, sugar, grated apple, alcohol and suet. Vegetarian suet, made from palm oil and rice flour, is increasingly used and should be indicated on the label. However, labelling laws prevent the mince pie being described as "traditional" if it is used. The Jam and Similar Products Regulations 2003 suggest (it isn't law) that manufacturers make mincemeat containing no less that 2.5% suet by weight. Suet is a saturated fat, which has been linked to increased incidence of coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis (thickening/ hardening of arteries). The Food Standards Agency says that vegetarian suet is just as high in saturated fat as animal suet."

And a happy christmas to you too.

"Words don't come easy"

Marina Hyde in The Guardian bemoans the abuse of language by the US authorities:
"The current focus on the CIA policy of flying terror suspects to countries where they can be questioned outside the protection of US law reveals that the latest word to get its ass kicked is "rendition". That, and the more vogueish phrase "extraordinary rendition". Hitherto, for me at least, "rendition" conjured up images of musical actors dressed in brightly coloured clothes crying "hey, let's do a song about it!". In its qualified state, it would indicate someone garnering critical acclaim for said rendering, as in: "That really was an extraordinary rendition of Memory from Cats." Now it turns out the phrase refers to sitting on the tarmac at Glasgow Prestwick airport while your CIA interrogators stock up on fuel before exporting you to some facility that
doesn't show up on any Romanian Ordnance Survey maps. Who knew?
Certainly, the dictionary has once again been left with egg on its face. "Rendition", it states. "The act of rendering." To render is defined among other things as to present, to give what is owed, to translate into another language and to reduce by heating. Not one word about being cellophaned to a ducking stool in the former eastern bloc.
And call me a hopeless old romantic, but it's really ripped the poetic heritage out of the word. "Render unto Egypt that which you can't make stand for 16 straight hours on home soil." Hard to put a finger on it, but it definitely loses something. Admittedly, against all the odds, the CIA's verbal appropriation has softened the blow of one familiar scenario. Next time a builder of questionable scruples squints at your brickwork and assures you the only way to deal with it is rendering, you will be able to think: "Well, it could be worse."

The other meaning of rendering involved the processing of animal fats into something akin to tallow. It used to be carried on in or about slaughterhouses. This derivation of the word seems rather more appropriate for the CIA's purposes.

05 December 2005

Adverts, adverts, adverts

I have just turned on the telly to watch the Chancellor's pre-budget statement (sad, I know, but there you go). The programme on BBC2 was preceded by three adverts for BBC programmes - successively, Strictly Come Dancing, A Bach Christmas and Russian Godfathers. Do these ads achieve anything other than irritating the viewer? I know that it's the wasteland of daytime tv, but the BBC might behave more like a public service broadcaster and less like a grubby commercial operator.

And what pension does The Scotsman editor earn?

The Scotsman makes a song and dance about the pensions of senior Scottish Executive civil servants:
"AN ELITE group of senior Scottish Executive civil servants are to share a taxpayer-funded "golden goodbye" of nearly £1.8 million when they retire, The Scotsman can reveal.
On top of pensions of up to £80,000 a year, the 16 civil servants will be given lump sum payments averaging more than £100,000 when they reach the age of 60.
Last night, opposition politicians called for the Executive's pension rules to be reviewed because of the growing disparity between the highest levels of the civil service and the rest of the public and private sectors. "

The implication of the article is that somehow these civil servants are being given a special deal. In fact, it is just the longstanding standard pension arrangements for all established civil servants, whether in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK. On reaching 60, a civil servant will retire with a pension of 1/80th of his or her final salary for every year of service up to a maximum of 40 years, together with a single lump sum of 3/80ths of his or her final salary for every year of service. The Scotsman may consider this excessively generous (although it is rather less generous than the pension arrangements for MSPs or, for example, the police), but it is misleading to imply that there is some kind of special deal involved.

One might also argue that senior civil servants are overpaid - but that is a different issue from pensions.

03 December 2005

If only...

The Telegraph seems to be living in fantasyland (here):
"It is an ugly spectacle. Over the past eight years, the Government has lifted £60 billion - equivalent to the entire GDP of the Czech Republic - out of private pension schemes. It has forced millions of retired people into the indignity of means testing. Yet, at the same time, MPs have finagled their own pension entitlements so that, after 25 years' service, they are guaranteed an annual income of £37,000.
Even Lord Turner, rarely a critic of New Labour, has been driven to protest. And who can blame him? The poor chap has been beavering away for three years to come up with a solution to our demographic crisis. His recommendations are not perfect, but they are an honest attempt to get to grips with the problem. Yet he now finds them traduced and scorned by the one set of people who have least to worry about.
Lord Turner's call for MPs to lose some of their pension privileges might have been prompted by testiness; but he is on to something. MPs can hardly ask the rest of us to tighten our belts while heaping their own plates higher. This is about more than pensions policy. The impression that MPs are exempting themselves from the rules they impose on the rest of us has prompted a contempt for politicians that is starting to translate into disdain for democracy."

MPs to reduce their pensions entitlement? Nice thought, but it will never happen.

02 December 2005

Taking a punt

I find it strange that the Blair Government - so nannying in matters of health, education, food, binge-drinking - should have presided over, and indeed encouraged, the explosion of the gambling industry. Arguably, gambling might be seen as the most rapacious form of capitalism, exploiting all social classes but most of all the workers, while ruining lives and families throughout the land. Did Chancellor Brown, son of the manse, realise what would happen when he abolished betting tax? I am not opposed in principle to gambling but it seems to me that there is already enough of it. The Independent tells all:
"Betting is likely to treble in the decade, creating a financial bonanza for bookmakers, an academic study shows. University researchers say Labour's abolition of betting tax four years ago has provided the perfect conditions for a gambling boom.
Gambling will soar from £6.9bn in 1999 to £11.8bn in 2009, says the Leisure Industries Research Centre of Sheffield Hallam University. In that time, betting on everything from horse-racing to share prices is expected to rise from £1.6bn billion to £4.3bn.
As restrictions on the number of casinos are relaxed, there will be strong rises in spending on fruit machines, poker, blackjack and roulette. The study will also raise concerns about more gambling addicts...
The researchers say gambling has been electrified by the abolition of betting tax in 2001 and the rise of internet and spread betting. Before that, gambling had declined by up to 5 per cent a year between 1999 and 2001. After the abolition of duty - in exchange for a tax on the bookmakers' profits - gambling has risen every year. Last year there was a 12 per cent spike.
The second-biggest sector of gambling, gaming machines, including fruit machines inside and outside casinos, is expected to rise by about 50 per cent in the next four years to £3.3bn. Lotteries, the third biggest sector, will nudge up to £2.5bn.
Money gambled in casinos on traditional games such as roulette or poker will increase by 25 per cent to £878m. The number of casinos in Britain has risen from 114 four years ago to 137 this year. There are applications before the Gambling Commission for 39 more casinos. Under the
new regime, the 2005 Gambling Act, ministers will approve at least one super-casino of 5,000square metres, a further eight medium-size casinos and eight smaller casinos by 2010.
Income from bingo is forecast to rise from £570m last year to £679m by 2009. The only area predicted to decline, the pools, will slump by about a quarter to £62m a year in 2009."

A case for a windfall tax?

The CSA and The Scotsman

Sloppy journalism in The Scotsman (here):
"THE CHILD Support Agency (CSA) costs 50 per cent more a year to run than it recovers from absent parents, ministers admitted yesterday. The beleaguered agency - whose fate is to be decided by the end of this year - cost taxpayers £12 million last year in operating costs, but retrieved only £8 million from parents for child maintenance.
The CSA played down the figures, saying they only accounted for money retrieved from the initial contact with the parent and did not take into account any future payments made by that person. However, the figures, revealed to Paul Goodman, the shadow work and pensions minister, in a parliamentary question, triggered calls for the CSA to be scrapped."

In fact, it is only the enforcement unit of the CSA that costs more to run than it recovers, which puts rather a different light on the matter (although this is damning enough). Secondly, while there was an earlier parliamentary question, the information was revealed in a point of order raised by Mr Goodman following a letter from the CSA to him.

The accurate picture is shown here, quoting the Parliamentary intervention:
"On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, I received a letter from Stephen Geraghty, the chief executive of the Child Support Agency. The letter responded to a written question that I tabled about the enforcement directorate. In effect, it confirms that that directorate managed to retrieve £8 million last year, but that its running costs were more than £12 million. "

So much for the standards of The Scotsman.

01 December 2005


Is this a spoof? From The Guardian (here):
"A British palaeontologist has discovered the footprints of a giant water scorpion that used to roam across Scotland around 330m years ago.
The tracks of the 1.6 metre (5ft) long creature, called Hibbertopterus, show that although it normally lived underwater, it could also crawl on to land.
Martin Whyte, from the University of Sheffield, found the scorpion tracks during geological fieldwork in central Scotland. "I came across a block of sandstone and noticed a strong central groove with three rows of crescent shaped footprints on either side," he says.
Fossil parts from scorpion like creatures have been uncovered previously in the same area and Dr Whyte immediately realised that these gigantic tracks could only belong to the biggest scorpion, known as Hibbertopterus. Until now most scientists believed that Hibbertopterus was only aquatic, but the new tracks show that it could venture on to land.
"The deep central groove was made as it dragged its tail along. If it had been underwater the tail would have been buoyed up by water," said Dr Whyte."

And no doubt the creature wore a green football jersey, lived at Easter Road and was wont to reminisce about the famous five...

30 November 2005

Power and energy

Iain MacWhirter in The Herald wonders about the Prime Minister's new-found passion for nuclear energy:
"The problems with nuclear waste management are as great today as ever. Indeed, the more you look at the arguments for building a new generation of nuclear power stations, the more improbable it seems that any of them will ever be built. One of the most persuasive is that we have already 11 nuclear plants, nestling in their own contaminated hot-spots, which will be radioactive for aeons anyway. So, why not just replace these and maintain the nuclear status quo? It's becoming increasingly clear that even this argument is fatally flawed.
As the environment editor of the Sunday Herald, Rob Edwards, revealed at the weekend, a report commissioned by the nuclear waste executive, Nirex, has warned that we may not be able to store nuclear waste, or build new power stations, on their existing sites. The reason: global warming. One of the most predictable consequences of climate change is the melting of the polar ice-caps and the consequent raising of sea levels. It's already happening. Our existing nuclear stations were mostly built near the sea, at places like Torness, or Hunterston.
This means they stand to be inundated in the not too distant future. Needless to say, when a nuclear power station is submerged by sea-water, the contamination is literally unfathomable. It would make Chernobyl look like a central heating problem. No-one knows when, exactly, the seas might rise and engulf these plants – but we know it is going to happen. Yet the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management is expected to recommend soon the long-term storage of future nuclear waste at the existing Sellafield site in Cumbria. It would be criminally irresponsible to locate a waste repository or build new reactors on sites that are so manifestly unsafe. We simply cannot inflict this risk on humanity simply to prolong our current energy-profligate lifestyle for a few more years. We can no longer plead ignorance about global warming. This means looking for new sites inland. There hasn't been a planning inquiry into a new nuclear station since Sizewell B in the 1980s. That took nearly five years. Imagine what it would be like trying to site 10 new Sizewells today near centres of population? It just isn't going to happen."

Even if planning permission was given (or more likely by-passed), the demonstrators would have a field-day during construction and they would probably attract the sympathy of significant parts of the population. But if there are to be no new nuclear facilities, what do we replace them with? It seems doubtful if renewables can fill the gap.

Meanwhile, our esteemed First Minister dodges the issue (here at First Minister's Questions last week):
"We will argue for a balanced energy policy and state clearly our position that we will not support further development of nuclear power stations while waste management issues remain unresolved."

which is a cop-out, if ever there was one.

Scare stories

Is this kind of reporting in The Herald credible:
"The scale of Scotland's obesity crisis was exposed yesterday as an official health poll revealed two-thirds of men and nearly 60% of women are overweight or obese. In eight years, the proportion of women with a weight problem has grown from below 50% to 59.7%. A nutrition expert described the results as "frightening".

Two-thirds of men are overweight? Look around - is this confirmed by your own eyes? One day, we may have a real problem and, because all the health professionals and nutrition experts have been crying wolf so long, no-one will listen.

Even the Health Minister is in denial. This is from the same Herald article:
"The survey suggested Scotland is failing to meet the dietary targets set a decade ago for the end of 2005. The number of people eating five fruit and vegetables a day is still hovering around one in five, the same level reported by a Food Standards Agency survey in 2001. Andy Kerr, health minister, said there were positive signals. "We are now beginning to see signs that we are starting to shed the sick man of Europe tag. Fewer Scots are dying prematurely from the big three killers of cancer, heart disease and stroke."

Despite being overweight, binge-drinking and not eating enough fruit and veg?

28 November 2005

Surfing at Dunbar

Dunbar is a quiet wee tourist village/dormitory town on the Scottish east coast. According to The Independent, they held a surfing competition yesterday. The air temperature was 2 degrees celsius. The winner of the competition said:
"We have some of the best surfing beaches in Europe, if not the world. We were getting rides of up to 15 seconds on the waves as they came in over the reef at the entrance to the bay ... 100-metre rides at times. We have really good waves here, it's just that not too many people are aware of it yet. The only difference between here and Hawaii is it is not quite so warm and there aren't any semi-naked girls lying on the beaches."

Aye, right...

Pensions and other boring stuff

Unlike many financial journalists, Stephen King (no, not that one) in The Independent is able to offer a reasonably lucid explanation of the current spat between the Chancellor and Lord Turner:
"In the UK's case, we've come to depend on a three-tier system: a basic, pay-as-you-go, system which guarantees a minimum amount of income to prevent the old and infirm from starving or freezing to death: a funded system in either the private or public sector which is invested in assets designed to provide a decent return when people eventually retire, and a voluntary "top-up" funded system for those that feel that the likely income from the first two tiers just isn't up to scratch.
The spat between the Chancellor and Adair Turner really focuses on the first of these tiers. Turner wants to make sure that everyone has access to a "pay-as-you-go" system, indexed according to wage growth. The Chancellor prefers a means-tested system which is indexed according to inflation.
There are two key differences between these approaches. First, a system indexed according to wage growth is more expensive than one linked to inflation - one of the reasons that Margaret Thatcher severed the link to earnings in the early-1980s. A system linked to wage growth effectively means that pensioners will share in an economy's ongoing productivity gains. To reduce the cost of this policy, Lord Turner is suggesting that the retirement age should gradually rise, in line with likely advances in life expectancy.
Second, a means-tested system suffers from moral hazard problems: if you know that you will be bailed out in old age whether or not you've saved in earlier years, then you might as well carry on spending. Under a means-tested system, you know that future taxpayers will be forced to bail you out for your earlier spending indiscretions."

As Mr King admits, this is a relative sideshow compared with the deeper questions offered to society by an aging population. From a selfish point of view, however, it may be worth pointing out that, even if the current single person's old age pension of about £70 per week were doubled to £150, it is still not going to provide anyone with a comfortable living. Which we means that we have to rely on the other two "tiers", not a particularly comfortable prospect unless you are lucky enough to be provided with a pension linked to final salary.

27 November 2005

Woolly-minded liberal thinking

Iain MacWhirter in The Sunday Herald tries to convey a more balanced picture of the asylum row (here) and incidentally reports:
"The MP for Drumchapel, John Robertson, said that he not only supported the dawn raid on his constituents, he also said on the BBC’s Politics Scotland show that “handcuffs are there to protect the children”.

I heard him say this on the programme but couldn't believe my ears - which is why I waited until now before posting. I suppose I could conceive of circumstances in which it might be acceptable to handcuff children, but I am far from sure that the fact that a family is about to be deported is justification in itself. But to suggest that handcuffs are there "to protect the children" is surely going too far.

26 November 2005

Pensions row

The Independent reports:

"Gordon Brown has demanded an inquiry into the leaking of his letter to Lord Turner's Pensions Commission as the row with Tony Blair over the direction of pensions reform deepened.
Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, immediately launched an investigation yesterday and began interviewing the small circle of officials in Downing Street and the Treasury who had seen the Chancellor's letter.
Mr Brown was furious over the leak, which led to the Chancellor being accused by Blairites of attempting to block the review before it reports next week. Clearly suspecting that his letter had been leaked by Downing Street, Mr Brown demanded that the Treasury Permanent Secretary, Nicholas McPherson, take action. Mr McPherson called in the Cabinet Secretary.
A Brown ally said: "Gordon was clear he wanted the correct procedures taken because he was being accused by opposition MPs and others with being responsible for the leak. He was clear no one in the Treasury was responsible."
It would be hugely embarrassing for No 10 if they were found to be responsible. Mr Blair's spokesman said: "I can categorically deny as far as my knowledge goes ... that we were responsible for the leak."

Remarkable: a No 10 denial which is neither categorical nor convincing...

25 November 2005

To hell on a handcart (part 29)

This exchange occurred in the House of Commons yesterday, during questions following the statement by the Leader of the House (here):
"Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a short debate on the beers offered for sale in Strangers Bar? Will he lend his authority as Leader of the House to my concerns about the replacement of Youngs ordinary bitter—one of the most famous cask-conditioned ales in this country, which has been on sale in Strangers for more than 10 years and is brewed in Britain's oldest brewery, based in my constituency—with San Miguel, a lager from the Philippines, which is not only greatly inferior but far more alcoholic? In the name of good taste and parliamentary sobriety, will he help us to get Youngs back?
Mr. Hoon: I never cease to be amazed by the range of my responsibilities. I am delighted to discover that I might have responsibility for that matter. I am sure that it will be investigated now that my hon. Friend has raised it so eloquently."

What kind of tasteless philistines are running the House of Commons nowadays? To replace Youngs with San Miguel is disgusting.

24 November 2005

Asylum seekers

In the light of the recent brou-haha over the treatment of failed asylum seekers, I have been asked to explain why opinion in Scotland seems relatively favourable with regard to immigration, at least by comparison with the position south of the border.
This is not easy, especially as it involves giving credit to the Scottish Executive and, particularly, to Jack McConnell for what I would regard as an enlightened outlook on the matter. But let us begin with Duncan MacNiven, the Registrar-General for Scotland, a nice enough guy (although not very good at sums). Duncan has been pontificating on a regular basis to the effect that Scotland's population is in serious decline - although when we actually dip below 5 million is a matter for constant revision. In the light of the more disastrous prognostications, the First Minister brought forward an initiative to encourage non-UK students to remain in Scotland after graduation. Rather to everyone's surprise, the Scottish media and, indeed, the Scottish political establishment thought that this was a good idea and there was no serious opposition. (The initiative is probably doomed, as the UK immigration policy is entirely happy to accept foreign students prepared to pay for their higher education but would prefer to see them depart after graduation.)
Into this situation was thrown the Vucaj family, a family of asylum seekers from Kosova who had been deposited in Glasgow some four years ago. The family settled in satisfactorily and the kids went to the local school where, naturally enough, they acquired a Scottish accent and Scottish chums. Earlier this year, their asylum application was turned down and the Immigration Service, in its apparently usual fashion, turned up at 5am one morning to take them away. Breaking down the door, 12 officials dressed in armoured uniforms handcuffed the parents and whisked off the children in their pyjamas to whereever the Immigration Service takes failed asylum seekers. The family was subsequently deported back to Kosova.
Their removal and especially the manner of the removal caused outrage to Scottish opinion - which means the tabloids got upset. But largely because the schoolchums of the Vucaj kids mounted a protest which attracted the attention of politicians of all parties. The matter was raised in the Scottish Parliament and everyone agreed that the "dawn raids" policy of the Home Office/Immigration Service was unacceptable. Although policy on immigration and asylum seekers is a reserved matter for the Westminster Parliament, Mr McConnell agreed to pursue the matter with the Home Office. It is his apparent failure to make any progress which is causing the current row.
But it remains encouraging that significant proportions of Scotland's population are prepared to welcome immigrants. One can feel proud of the schoolkids who protested the removal of their chums. And one can applaud the relatively enlightened attitude of politicians in the Scottish Parliament. If there is a disappointing aspect to the matter, it concerns the Scottish MPs at Westminster most of whom have kept their heads firmly under the parapet. And the First Minister might have put a bit more pressure on the Home Office, although it is probable that he was always flogging a dead horse.

Deeper and deeper

You couldn't make it up! The Times reports:
"JACK McCONNELL’s vulnerability on the question of the forced removal of failed asylum-seekers in Scotland was again laid bare last night after it emerged that he had not raised the issue of so-called “dawn raids” with the Home Office.
The revelation contributed to a widespread feeling at Holyrood that the First Minister’s claim that he was on the way to winning a special deal for Scotland covering deportation was without foundation.
Nationalist, Green and Conservative MSPs joined forces yesterday to demand an explanation from Mr McConnell over the disclosure from Home Office officials on Monday that any changes to the way forced removals are handled will be UK-wide and will not be tailored for Scotland. The
controversy intensified after the First Minister’s spokesman agreed that he had not raised the dawn raids issue with the Home Office, even though these are the nub of MSP complaints about how the deportation system operates.
The critics of the removal system say that dawn raids, during which the homes of failed asylum-seeking families are visited early in the morning prior to removals, must stop.
Mr McConnell, in previous pronouncements, left the clear impression in the minds of the Scottish public, MSPs and the media that he was the driving force behind changes to the removal system that would apply primarily in Scotland."


Contrasting stories in The Herald (here):
"Chris Ballance, the Green MSP, had asked Strathclyde Police to investigate whether "rendition" flights landing at Prestwick and Glasgow were illegal. But a letter from Ian Learmonth, the force's assistant chief constable, said police could investigate only where there was evidence of a criminal act in Scotland. He added: "There must be more than mere speculation. If you have additional material which you could make available, I confirm the matter could be looked at afresh." Mr Ballance said this amounted to "the police asking a politician to do the police's job". According to records obtained by The Herald from the US Federal Aviation Administration, Prestwick and Glasgow top the rendition pit-stop league table north of the border with 75 and 74 visits respectively since 2001, followed by 14 for Edinburgh, six for RAF Leuchars, five for
Inverness and two for Wick."

and in The Independent (here):
"An investigation into claims that the CIA held al-Qa'ida suspects in secret prisons in Europe has been stepped up, with 45 countries being sent a formal demand to provide information.
Austria's air force is investigating reports that a US transport plane containing suspected terrorist captives passed through the neutral country's air space in 2003. And Denmark is to ask US authorities for details about claims that detainees were flown across its territory. Two eastern European countries are said to be involved, and the UK presidency of the EU is sending a letter to the US seeking more information.
Terry Davis, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, set a 21 February deadline for his 45 member nations to answer questions on overflights, landings and possible secret detention centres.
Dick Marty, a Swiss MP, said he was investigating the flight plans of 31 aircraft that landed in Europe in recent years, but he believes the suspected detention centres are likely to be small, and have probably been closed. He appealed to the UN, Nato, the EU and Eurocontrol, which coordinates European air traffic navigation, for help."

Mr Marty can appeal to the UN, NATO and the EU, but he better not approach Strathclyde's finest.

I suspect that we are about to hear a lot more on this matter.

Flu jabs

The Independent reports something of a row south of the border:
"A furious Tony Blair was forced on the defensive over the flu vaccination crisis amid continuing anger over the Department of Health's handling of the affair.
Mr Blair distanced himself from the insistence by the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, that doctors were responsible for ordering the vaccine.
He declined to blame doctors for over-prescribing winter flu jabs as he faced repeated claims that the Government was guilty of "inefficiency and incompetence" for allowing vaccine supplies to dry up.
Ms Hewitt sparked irritation from GPs on Tuesday when she blamed doctors for failing to give priority to people who were at most risk of catching flu - mainly the over-65s.
The Health Secretary apologised yesterday to patients who were unable to get their injections, but she said that she hoped all people at risk would get a vaccination before the end of the winter."

A fat lot of good it will do to be given a flu jab at the end of the winter. Meanwhile, all is sweetness and light in the Scottish Parliament, according to The Scotsman (here):
"HOLYROOD managers were condemned as "daft" and "insensitive" last night after it emerged that MSPs had been offered flu jabs while there is a shortage of the vaccine for Scotland's sick and elderly.
Despite the shortfall, 28 MSPs took up the parliament's offer of a flu jab this year - about 20 per cent of the total.
They were joined by 119 members of staff at the parliament out of a total parliamentary population of about 1,200.
Some pensioners have been told to wait for their flu jabs because of the unexpectedly high demand for the vaccination among other, less vulnerable, sections of the population."

Sniffle, sniffle...

23 November 2005

Police mystery

The BBC reports the latest developments:
"The identities of two prime suspects in the shooting of Pc Sharon Beshenivsky have been circulated to police forces nationwide, the BBC has learned.
Detectives confirmed they were now actively seeking three men after significant developments in the case.
Pc Beshenivsky was shot dead and her colleague, Pc Teresa Milburn, injured during a robbery at a travel agents.
Police also issued details of a silver Toyota hire car thought to be have been used in Friday's robbery in Bradford.
Five Somalian men, and a woman, were arrested in London over the weekend and brought to police stations in West Yorkshire but have all now been released. "

There has been surprisingly little comment on the release of those previously arrested. It was only Monday that these were conducted to Bradford with some pomp and circumstance, as admirably recorded by Bystander:
"But did you see the TV news footage of those suspects being taken up the M1? Something like a dozen vehicles, including many armed officers, proceeding at a stately speed up the motorway, with junctions closed as they passed, and other vehicles being kept away. At the scene of the murder, armed officers stood about in their baseball caps, looking at the cameras that were looking at them.
What exactly were the police so worried about? This wasn’t Al-Quaeda or the IRA, was it? The police are looking for a bunch of small-time losers, albeit armed ones, who tried to knock over a travel agency in a run-down part of a run-down town, not a paramilitary group. Was it really so necessary to deploy scores of officers (who could presumably be more use elsewhere) on escort duty, or on standing around in the cold cradling a Heckler and Koch automatic carbine? Did anyone seriously fear an attempt to release the suspects, or to burst into the crime scene and mess up the evidence?I suspect that every time a middle-ranking officer sees this kind of grandstanding he becomes determined that when it’s his turn to be in charge, he too will throw everything he has at the problem for the benefit of the cameras. Where is the managerial assessment of the problem, and the proportionate use of resources?"

All this fuss, and two days later the suspects are released? What is going on?

Socks 2

Michael Gove in The Times patronises the peasants on their choice of hosiery:
"Sir Christopher’s real mistake was in the hosiery department. John Prescott’s revelation that Our Man in Washington was known throughout his time in the States as “the red-socked fop” exposed the real frailty in judgment. Just as every man over the age of 35 needs to know how to deal with aural hair growth, so no man over the age of 25 should attempt individuality with his socks.
Brightly coloured or, even worse, patterned, socks worn with business suits are a catastrophic faux pas, up there with novelty ties bearing the image of cartoon characters, bow-ties of any colour other than black, worn with anything other than a dinner jacket, braces of more than one colour, cufflinks with any writing on them other than your initials, and baseball caps worn for any purpose other than playing the game or logging in the Canadian Rockies.
The decision to go for red is meant to show an air of devil-may-care individuality and loveableness. But I fear it’s the sartorial equivalent of hanging a “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!” poster above your desk. It is, in the profoundest sense of the word, a deeply Brentian act."

Who cares what some hoity-toity Tory MP thinks about socks? Wear whatever seems comfortable. A good socialist will never sneer at wearing red. And, as for novelty ties, bring a little colour into your life!


Michael Gove in The Times dispenses useful sartorial advice:
"Sir Christopher’s real mistake was in the hosiery department. John Prescott’s revelation that Our Man in Washington was known throughout his time in the States as “the red-socked fop” exposed the real frailty in judgment. Just as every man over the age of 35 needs to know how to deal with aural hair growth, so no man over the age of 25 should attempt individuality with his socks.
Brightly coloured or, even worse, patterned, socks worn with business suits are a catastrophic faux pas, up there with novelty ties bearing the image of cartoon characters, bow-ties of any colour other than black, worn with anything other than a dinner jacket, braces of more than one colour, cufflinks with any writing on them other than your initials, and baseball caps worn for any purpose other than playing the game or logging in the Canadian Rockies.
The decision to go for red is meant to show an air of devil-may-care individuality and loveableness. But I fear it’s the sartorial equivalent of hanging a “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!” poster above your desk. It is, in the profoundest sense of the word, a deeply Brentian act."
For the record, socks should be black or navy blue. Unless you are wearing a brown suit - but if you are you shouldn't be...

Executive keeps on digging

Following last night's row about asylum seekers, the Executive is seeking to blame Home Office officials. Thus here in The Herald :
"The officials said educational or medical criteria for children would be taken into consideration, but pointed out this was already happening across the UK and was not a concession to the Scottish Executive. A source close to Mr McConnell later said: "This was a cack-handed briefing by a couple of Home Office officials."

And here in The Scotsman:
"The First Minister's advisers insisted last night that ministers had reached an agreement in principle with UK ministers to change the way asylum seekers are treated, following the Mr McConnell's intervention, and Home Office civil servants were to blame for yesterday's confusion because they did not know what was going on."
Let us see for how long such a line of briefing remains sustainable. (It is seldom a good idea to attack those who can pull the rug from under your feet.)

Would anyone seriously believe that senior Home Office officials, briefing the press in advance of a visit to Scotland by their Minister, do not know what is going on?

22 November 2005

"There's a guy works down the chip-shop swears he's Elvis.."

The BBC reports that the Home Office has ruled out any special arrangements for dealing with failed asylum seekers, thus putting paid to the First Minister's hopes of a "protocol":
"The UK Government has dismissed the first minister's call for Scotland to be given special treatment on the issue of the removal of asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Tony McNulty said no concessions could be made for Scotland, despite the Scottish Executive's unease at the system. Jack McConnell had hoped that the executive would be consulted before failed asylum
seekers were removed.
Mr McNulty will be in Scotland on Thursday to meet Scottish Executive officials and organisations involved with asylum seekers. Ahead of his visit, it has emerged that he will tell Mr McConnell there can be no special arrangements with the executive on the issue of dawn raids.
BBC Scotland home affairs correspondent Reevel Alderson said educational or medical criteria would be taken into consideration but he pointed out that that was already happening across the UK and was not a concession to the executive. "

As recently as last Thursday (17 November), Mr McConnell told the Parliament:
"Discussions continue with the Home Office on the agreement that we seek to reach with it... We are determined that cases that concern young children involve the education and social services that, in this country, have a responsibility for those youngsters. That is the agreement that we are seeking to reach with the Home Office. When we have made detailed progress on that, we will, of course, report to Parliament."

"There needs to be an agreement with the Home Office. However, it would be far better for us to have the right agreement than to have an agreement that is reached in haste. That is why we will ensure that the discussions progress towards the right conclusion. I will not set some arbitrary date, as that might mean that the agreement could be inadequate. I want to ensure that the agreement is properly completed, and that is the point at which we will report to Parliament."

It is now clear that there will be no agreement with the Home Office. So why did the First Minister think that there would be? I find it difficult to believe that the Home Office misled the Executive. Perhaps, the First Minister thought that he could bounce the Home Office into it - in which case, he has been proved mistaken. Or perhaps political pressure forced him to clutch at a mythical straw. In any event, I bet he wishes that he had stuck to the line of stating that this was a reserved matter and taking whatever flak came down as a result. The position is now much worse: not only has he - at least arguably - misled the Parliament, he has revealed himself as totally unable to influence his Westminster colleagues. The issue is unlikely to go away in a hurry.

Smokers lead such interesting lives...

There can be advantages in nipping out to have a fag. From the Guardian:
"Brummies mingled with Westminster and City folk at the recent 50th birthday bash of CBI boss and Birmingham boy Digby Jones. The mixed crowd led to all manner of interesting exchanges, such as when one woman slipped outside the Blenheim Palace venue for a fag and met another smoker: "My name's Alison, what's yours?" "Eddie." "Pleased to meet you Eddie," said the Birmingham housewife. "What do you do?" "I used to run the Bank of England," said former governor Sir Eddie George."

But there can also be disadvantages:
"A French woman who is terrified of flying admitted in a Brisbane court yesterday that, while drunk, she tried to open an aircraft door mid-flight to smoke a cigarette.Sadrine Sellies, 34, was placed on a good behaviour bond after pleading guilty to endangering the safety of an aircraft. Sellies was on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Brisbane on Saturday with her husband, the court heard. She was arrested and charged on arrival at Brisbane airport. Defence lawyer Helen Shilton told the court Sellies had taken sleeping tablets with alcohol before takeoff and had no memory of the incident."

Two wheel superstar

The Guardian considers the biking prowess of President Bush:

"He's a pretty serious mountain biker. The bike is a carbon-fibre Trek, with Rock Shox front forks. Not totally top-end, but you get an awful lot of bike for $3,000 these days. He's wearing Sidi off-road shoes - $200 items designed for competition: light, stiff, with ski-binding-style cleats. Admittedly, the president's jacket and shorts are bulky and baggy, compared with the Chinese cyclists' more professional all-in-one Lycra suits. But, in fact, his style is mainstream for off-roaders - and, arguably, Bush wins brownie points for not wearing those wussy tights the Chinese team have on. Even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand bare-legged. The helmet is generic but late-model; the full-finger gloves are purpose-made; and the eyewear is sophisticated with lenses that enhance vision in low-light conditions. But the real give-away here is that his wristwatch is not a watch at all - it's a heartrate monitor (HRM). Now that's a real bike nut's piece of kit.
What this means is that when Bush was packing his bags to go to China, he wasn't thinking about trade or Tibet. He was thinking: Jeez, three days without a workout ... you know what, I'm going to take my bike - better take the HRM, too. Last year, a journalist from Associated Press joined the president on a lap of his Crawford ranch. Bush's heart rate, Scott Lindlaw reported, peaked at 168 beats per minute during the 18-mile loop. For a man of his age (59), that's likely to be about 95% of his maximum - which is the sort of intensity only elite athletes train at. According to AP, Bush completed the ride in an hour and 20 minutes. That's more than 13mph, which may not sound all that fast, but for an off-road cyclist, believe me, it's shifting. His resting pulse - a good rule-of-thumb indicator of fitness - is down in the 40s. On this form, Bush could not only hold his own in age-related cross-country races, he'd win some."

I just wish that he would put the same degree of effort into the day job. And is there not something slightly sad, even fetishistic, about a 59 year-old going to these lengths to remain an "athlete"?